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Traditional Cypriot lacemaking

Skilled women are keeping the age-old tradition of Lefkara lacemaking alive. Sally McIlhone finds out about this ancient craft

Feature

by Sally McIlhone

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Lefkara lace maker

Photograph: needlenthread.com/Mary Corbet

Lefkara lace maker

In today’s digital age, it’s heartening that in some parts of the world traditional and age-old crafts are still being practised. The women of Lefkara, a hillside town some 35 minutes’ drive from Larnaca, have been producing lace for about 1,500 years. During the Venetian domination of Cyprus from 1489 to 1571 the region’s women adapted their traditional designs to incorporate the striking new techniques they learned from the Italian occupants. This fusion of Cypriot and Venetian lacemaking led to a new form of lace known as lefkaritiko which is now the hallmark of the area.

Generation game
The skills it takes to create such stunning lace items are evident in the variety of motifs synonymous with lefkaritiko, from the mila (apples) design to the finikoto (palm tree) style. Designs have been modified by younger generations of local women, each adding their own adaptations to the patterns created by their mothers and grandmothers, much like a lace equivalent of a patchwork quilt. Only around 10 designs can be attributed to true Lefkara lace, and some of these are no longer in existence.

The most popular design is the potamos or ‘river’ design, which is one of the most expensive and is the most culturally significant. In 1481, on a visit to Lefkara, Leonardo da Vinci picked up a piece of potamos embroidery and took it back to Milan cathedral; another piece was presented to the cathedral in 1986 by the Mayor of Lefkara to celebrate its 600th anniversary.

Colour code
Today lefkaritiko comes in many forms including tablecloths, sheets, pillowcases and other linens for the bedroom. Some items aren’t genuine so it’s worth knowing how to identify a high-quality piece of embroidery. Beige linen from Ireland or Belgium will be used, as well as DMC thread from France. Colours should be muted rather than bright, and the lace should be entirely reversible. A unique scalloped edge is also a feature of the lace.

Sadly, there is a dwindling pool of craftspeople who are skilled enough to make this lace. One of the most damaging consequences of the digital age is a reliance on machines over people, particularly in the manufacture of fashion and design items, as well as the erosion of the importance of traditional skills.

Old-world charm
In today’s world, the skill of lacemaking isn’t highly valued among young women. Why make lace when you can design an app or create the next must-have gadget? As such, the fate of Lefkara lace rests very much in the hands of the next generation – and of visitors. While in Cyprus, take the opportunity to visit the village, to meet the skilled craftswomen and invest in a piece of Cypriot history.

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